Sundance Film Festival 2019 Big Time Adolescence Review Rahul Desai

Director: Jason Orley
Cast: Griffin Gluck, Pete Davidson, Sydney Sweeney, Jon Cryer

On the surface, Big Time Adolescence might seem like just another quick-witted, self-aware and quirky little American high-school movie about a boy navigating his way through cinema’s most entertaining age-group. Mo (Griffin Gluck) is intelligent, introverted and awkward – the classic recipe for most coming-of-age better-than-average teen-angst flicks. It’s usually this promising kid that, in pursuit of social currency beyond his league, ends up becoming an asshole before redeeming himself in the eyes of those he has let down. The protagonist, in such cases, is both the underdog and the villain upon himself. This is where Jason Orley’s delightfully original take on an inherently individualistic template assumes a life of its own. Because Big Time Adolescence touches upon an aspect most movies refuse to acknowledge: not first love or first tragedy, but the first (and at times, only) friend. The first influence.

At Mo’s age, it was never going to be a girl. He idolizes the much-older and reckless Zeke (Pete Davidson), who is perhaps every parent’s worst nightmare. He’s cool, charming, goofy and generally irresponsible – the popular kid in college who has gleefully lost his way, dragging everyone down in his (affable) wake.

Mo is very young when he makes Zeke his hero; the older he gets, the more difficult it becomes for him to justify his choice of worship. And Zeke is too old to not like someone looking up to him; the older he gets, the harder it becomes for him to be the guy Mo once thought him to be. It’s like the childhood crush that battles against time and tide only to fall prey to Darwinian logic. Which is what makes Big Time Adolescence a love story of sorts. It isn’t only Mo’s story, it’s also Zeke’s, because relationships are a two-way street, and the film succeeds at internalizing that gaze. We see them through each other, and not through the eyes of the world that judges them. We see Zeke, who would otherwise be a toxic drug-peddling loser in another film, as a well-meaning and charming man-child – the kind of sincere directionlessness you might put down to “not having a father figure” or good luck. Davidson, a comedian, delivers one of the best performances I’ve seen in a “light” film for a long time – like a clown who wears face paint so that nobody can see his tears. The empathy he generates with a toothy grin and silver-tongued banter is incredible. There is such a little-lost-boy look about his gait, despite being saddled with a role that allows him to not just bring the house down but fool the house into believing that Mo is all right. That Mo and Zeke need each other. That Mo is a little brother, that Mo needs a cool father figure to counter his real (cool) father (Two And A Half Men’s Jon Cryer, in a fine movie role).

In director Jason Orley’s hands, Zeke and Mo share the kind of relationship that society cannot understand. Sisters, parents, girlfriends, cops, they all watch helplessly – a star-crossed romance that serves as a trial-by-fire for teens crossing over into adulthood. There’s always that one friend that prepares you for disillusionment, heartbreak, cynicism, perspective and…life. Only, in a movie as uncannily sensitive and quietly moving as Big Time Adolescence, it’s not clear if Mo or Zeke is that friend. It’s not clear if the boy turning into a man is the problem or the man being the boy is. These things should never be clear. A deceptively direct film like this just gets it.

Rating:   star

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